Elizabeth Taylor, AIDS Pioneer, 1932-2011

Elizabeth Taylor –– who for a majority of Americans was a towering international film star and celebrity for their entire life –– will likely be remembered most fondly in the LGBT community for her pioneering work in alerting the nation and the world to the urgency of the HIV/ AIDS epidemic.

According to amfAR, the Foundation for AIDS Research, where Taylor served as the founding chair, the film star first became involved in HIV advocacy in December 1984, when she signed on as a major donor to AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA). “Well, I kept seeing all these news reports on this new disease and kept asking myself why no one was doing anything,” an amfAR online tribute quotes her as saying. “And then I realized I was just like them. I wasn’t doing anything to help.”

The following year, Taylor joined the board of the National AIDS Research Foundation in Los Angeles. When that group soon thereafter merged with the New York-based AIDS Medical Foundation, founded by Dr. Mathilde Krim, to form amfAR (originally known as the American Foundation for AIDS Research), Taylor told Krim she wished to head up a national fundraising effort for the new group.

“Celebrity is not something that comes without responsibility,” she said at that time. “If I can help further a worthwhile cause simply by lending my voice, I feel that it is my place to do so.”

Beyond the pure symbolism of a person of her renown speaking out publicly on what in the 1980s was still a very controversial topic –– in many quarters, such as the White House and Congress, a hot potato –– amfAR credits her with a number of critical specific actions:

• Her congressional testimony on behalf of the Ryan White CARE Act of 1990, the first such comprehensive federal funding legislation, which today remains the primary source of money from Washington to fight the epidemic;

• Her 1989 appearance in a Bangkok hospital shaking hands with AIDS patients, which was a potent tool in educating people throughout Southeast Asia about HIV and dispelling unfounded fears of those living with it; and

• Her 1996 World AIDS Day address to the United Nations General Assembly, calling for a more coordinated global attack on the virus.

In 2005, Taylor participated in a groundbreaking public relations campaign launched by amfAR chair Kenneth Cole titled “We All Have AIDS (If One of Us Does).”

Not all of Taylor’s efforts took place under the glaring lights of the global media. In a 1997 interview with Kevin Sessums for POZ magazine, she talked about starting a needle exchange and condom distribution center in Washington “for only $72,000… From the outside you can’t tell what it is. I say only $72,000 because it has changed so many lives.”

In talking about needle exchange with POZ, Taylor was blunt in taking on the Clinton administration over its refusal to allow federal funding for such efforts. Speaking of Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala’s inaction on the issue, the actress said, “I think she is causing so many problems and being so irresponsible. But has anybody told this woman that she could be responsible for a lot of deaths? I’m not accusing her of that, because it’s a pretty harsh accusation, but by not allowing it she’s putting up a barrier.”

About the president to whose political sensitivities Shalala was deferring, Taylor said, “He’s disappointed me.”

Taylor was one of the early voices at amfAR pushing the organization to expand its work beyond the United States, an eventual transformation that led the group to drop the word “American” from its name and initiate ambitious global endeavors like its Treat Asia program that addresses the staggering rates of growth in HIV infections there, particularly in China and Southeast Asia.

Asked by Sessums about her tussles with amfAR years before on that issue, Taylor spoke frankly. “We finally did go international,” she said. “But I did have a big fight. I mean, the United States is not the only nation that is suffering with AIDS. But Americans are very chauvinistic. I was brought up internationally.”

From 1991 until her death, the actress ran the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which provides funding for groups fighting the epidemic across the US.

In a statement issued by the Human Rights Campaign, its president Joe Solmonese said, “Taylor was a true ally to the LGBT community. She was one of the first public voices to speak up about the AIDS crisis while many others stayed silent in the 1980s, and she helped raise millions of dollars to fight the disease.”

A statement from the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) noted that Taylor had been honored by the group in 2000. In accepting her award, the actress said, “There is no gay agenda, it’s a human agenda. Why shouldn’t gay people be able to live as open and freely as everybody else? What it comes down to, ultimately, is love. How can anything bad come out of love? The bad stuff comes out of mistrust, misunderstanding, and, God knows, from hate and from ignorance.”

The Hebrew phrase “tikkun olam” is best translated as “repair the world”; it is meant to convey the responsibilities of a life well led. For Taylor, who converted to Judaism in 1959 at the age of 27, it seems a fitting epithet as we mourn her passing.